Defense Mechanisms

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In all three types of anxiety , the function of the ego is to cope with threats and to defend against the dangers they pose in order to reduce anxiety . The ego accomplishes this task through the use of various defense mechanisms, which enable the ego to control anxiety , even objective anxiety . Although intrapsychic conflicts fre quently evoke anxiety, people can successfully defend themselves from conflict an never consciously feel the anxiety . For example, in conversion reaction, where a conflict is converted to a symptom, the conflict is expressed in the form of phys cal symptoms, an illness or weakness in a part of the body . Curiously, such people may be indifferent to the symptom, not anxious about losing feeling in a leg or having a headache that will not go away . The symptoms help them avoid the anxiety , and even the symptoms do not make them anxious. Defense mechanisms serve two functions: (1) to protect the ego and (2) to minimize anxiety and distress. Let' s turn now to a discussion of one of the defense mechanisms that Freud wrote about extensively and that has received a good deal of attention from researchers in personality psychology.


Early in his theorizing, Freud used the term repression to refer to the process of preventing unacceptable thoughts, feelings, or ur ges from reaching conscious awareness. Repression was the forerunner of all other forms of defense mechanisms. Repression is defensive in the sense that, through it, a person avoids the anxiety that would arise if the unacceptable material were made conscious. From his clinical practice, Freud learned that people often tended to remember the pleasant circumstances surrounding an event more easily than the unpleasant ones. He concluded that unpleasant memories were often repressed.

Freud first developed the concept of repression as a global strategy that the eg uses to maintain forbidden impulses in the unconscious. The term is still used today to refer to "for gotten" wishes, ur ges, or events—recall the account of "repressed" traumatic memories with which the chapter opened. Later , Freud articulated several more specific kinds of defense mechanisms. All of these specific forms involved degree of repression, in that some aspect of reality is denied or distorted in the service of reducing anxiety and protecting the control of the ego over the psychic system.

Other Defense Mechanisms

Freud's daughter Anna, herself an accomplished psychoanalyst, played a lar ge role in identifying and describing other mechanisms of defense (A. Freud, 1936). She believed that the ego could muster some very creative and ef fective mechanisms to protect against blows to self-esteem and threats to psychic existence. A few of these defense mechanisms will be described in detail in this section.

A student of Freud's named Fenichel (1945) revised the idea of defense to focus more on how these mechanisms function to protect self-esteem. That is, people have a preferred view of themselves, and they will defend against any unflattering change or blows to that self-view . Obviously, realizing that one has unacceptable sexual or aggressive wishes might be a blow one' s self-view, especially for persons in the Victorian era. However , in today's society there may be other events that threaten self-esteem, such as failure, embarrassment, and being excluded from a group. Most modern psychologists believe that people defend themselves against these threats to their self-esteem (Baumeister & Vohs, 2004). Much of the contemporary research on self-esteem maintenance can thus be thought of as having roots in the psychoanalytic concept of defense mechanisms. Baumeister and his colleagues (Baumeister , Dale, & Sommer, 1998) reviewed a good deal of modern research linking self-esteem protection to defense mechanisms, and we will provide some examples from their review where appropriate.

Denial When the reality of a situation is extremely anxiety-provoking, a person may resort to the defense mechanism of denial. In contrast to repression, which involves keeping an experience out of memory , a person in denial insists that things are not the way they seem. Denial involves refusing to see the facts. A man whose wife has left him might still set a place at the dinner table for her and insist that she is supposed to come home at any time. Playing out this scenario night after night might be more acceptable than acknowledging that she is, in reality , gone. Denial can also be less extreme, as when someone reappraises an anxiety-provoking situation so that it seems less daunting. For example, a man might convince himself that his wife had to leave him for some reason, that it really was not her fault, and that she would return if only she could. In this case, he is denying that his wife freely chose to leave him instead of acknowledging the whole reality of the situation.

A common form of denial is to dismiss unflattering feedback as wrong or irrel evant. When people are given a poor evaluation, say by a supervisor , some will reject the evaluation rather than change their view of themselves. They might blame their difficulties on bad luck or problems with the situation, anything but accept persona responsibility and have to alter their view of themselves. Indeed, the tendency to blame events outside one's control for failure but to accept responsibility for success is so common that psychologists refer to this as the fundamental attribution error. It may be interpreted, however , as a specific form of denial

Health psychologists are also interested in denial. How can a person smoke two packs of cigarettes a day and not worry about his or her health? One answer would be to deny one' s personal vulnerability , or to deny the evidence linking smoking to illness, or to deny that one wants to live a long and healthy life. Baumeister et al. (1998) review evidence that people often minimize the risks they see in various unhealthy behaviors.

Denial often shows up in daydreams and fantasies. Daydreams are frequently about how things might have been. To some extent, daydreams deny the present situation by focusing on how things could have been otherwise. In doing so, they may lessen or defend against the potentially anxiety-provoking circumstances of one' s present situation. For example, a person who has done something embarrassing might daydream about how things might have gone had he or she not done that stupid, embarrassing thing.

Displacement In displacement, a threatening or an unacceptable impulse is channeled or redirected from its original source to a nonthreatening tar get. Consider, for example, a woman who has an ar gument with her supervisor at work. She is really angry with the supervisor, but her ego keeps her in check because, after all, the supervisor is the boss and can make her work life dif ficult, so she goes home and displace her anger onto her husband, perhaps yelling and nagging at him or belittling him. Although this approach may contribute to marital problems, it will most likely avoid the difficulties associated with losing one s temper at one' s boss. Sometimes displacement has a domino effect, whereby one spouse berates another, who in turn yells at the children, who then abuse the family dog. Moreover , although displacement is often thought of as a defense mechanism involving the redirection of aggressive instincts, it can also involve sexual ur ges that are redirected from a less acceptable to a more acceptable tar get. For example, a man may have a strong sexual attraction toward a woman who is subordinate to him at work, but this woman has no interest in him. Rather than harass the woman, he may redirect this sexual ener gy toward his wife and rediscover that he is still attracted to her . Freud also noted that sometimes even fears are redirected through displacement and cited as an example the case of a boy who feared his father but who redirected that fear toward horses.

Although these examples seem to involve conscious awareness and a calculating choice of how to express the unacceptable emotion, the process of displacement takes place outside of awareness. Deliberately redirecting one's anger, for example, is not displacement, even though someone might do this to manage a situation. Real displacement is an unconscious means of avoiding the recognition that one has certain inappropriate or unacceptable feelings (e.g., anger or sexual attraction) toward a specific other person or a specific object Those feelings then are displaced onto another person or object that is more appropriate or acceptable.

Researchers have tried to study the displacement of aggressive impulses. In one study, student participants were frustrated (or not, if they were in the control group) by the experimenter . Later they had the opportunity to act aggressively toward the experimenter, the experimenter' s assistant, or another participant. The frustrated participants were more aggressive, but they were equally aggressive toward the experimenter, the assistant, or the other student (Hokanson, Bur gess, & Cohen, 1963). The target did not matter. Other studies have replicated this finding. In one study subject were angered, not by the experimenter , but by another participant, then given an opportunity to act aggressively toward that subject or toward a friend of that participant. Again, angered participants were more aggressive, but it did not seem to matter who the tar get was.

Are these results evidence for displacement? Baumeister et al. (1998) conclude they are not. Angered people act aggressively , they ar gue, and there is no evidence that it is defensive. They argue that, while displacement is an interesting dynamic concept, there is little empirical support for the idea that ur ges are like hydraulic fluid i a closed system being shunted this way or that depending on displacement.

Rationalization Another common defense mechanism, especially among educated persons, such as college students, is rationalization. It involves generating acceptable reasons for outcomes that might otherwise appear socially unacceptable. In rationalization, the goal is to reduce anxiety by coming up with an explanation for an event that is easier to accept than the real reason. For example, a student who receives a failing grade on a term paper might explain it away by insisting that the teacher did not give clear directions for how to write the paper . Or perhaps a woman whose boyfriend has broken up with her explains to her friends that she never really liked him that much to begin with. These reasons are a lot more emotionally acceptable than the alternatives that one is not as smart or as desirable as one thinks.

Reaction Formation In an attempt to stifle the expression of an unacceptable u ge, a person may continually display a flurry of behavior that indicates the opposit impulse. Such a tactic is known as reaction formation. For example, imagine the woman who is angry with her supervisor, described in the discussion of displacement. If, instead of displacing her anger , her ego unconsciously resorts to reaction formation, then she might go out of her way to be overly kind to her boss, to show the boss special courtesy and consideration.

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Do Not Panic

Do Not Panic

This guide Don't Panic has tips and additional information on what you should do when you are experiencing an anxiety or panic attack. With so much going on in the world today with taking care of your family, working full time, dealing with office politics and other things, you could experience a serious meltdown. All of these things could at one point cause you to stress out and snap.

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